It was a moment of revelation for Amelia Rudolph, then a 25-year-old dancer/choreographer with a graduate degree in comparative religion from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. She had just taken up rock climbing in 1989 when she realized that moving with a dancer’s grace improved her climbing skills. “Just swinging on the ropes and watching other climbers made some something click, and I thought, ‘This is dance’,” she said in an interview with the Reno Gazette Journal. “I realized there were opportunities there, using the technical aspects of climbing that could enable me to break out of the constraints that gravity holds on normal dancers. So I started experimenting vertically.” Thus was born the idea for her dance company Project Bandaloop, founded in 1991 and named after the immortality-conferring dance described in Tom Robbins’s novel Jitterbug Perfume.
The marriage, between dance and scaling cliffs, is continuously re-created each time Rudolph and her regular troupe of Bandaloopers defy gravity — whether at Seattle’s Space Needle, Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan, Lisbon’s Vasco Da Gama Tower, or dangling from a Houston skyscraper. For the Houston performance, the group danced 23 stories up, with 40,000 people on the ground looking on, as the Houston Symphony Orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. Rudolph looks back on this as “an incredibly grand, magical experience; I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
In Crossing, funded by Creative Capital, Project Bandaloop traversed the spectacular Sierra Nevada Range in the summer of 2001, creating a site-specific dance at the highest point on the traverse and paying homage, as their mission statement puts it, to both “the natural world and the human spirit.” Rudolph sees herself akin to John Muir and Ansel Adams, someone “who draws inspiration from the natural beauty of the Sierra Nevada Range.” What the Oakland, California-based choreographer has done is take modern dance, an essentially urban-environment form, and turn it into a ritual that harks back to older times, when culture and nature were co-celebrated, rather than separated, as in, for example, Native American rituals.
Crossing draws from mountain panoramas and animals that live in the Sierras, like falcons, marmots, and bears. Doing so, Rudolph observes, allows “for the coexistence of the dance, the dancers, the animals, and the land,” a way of “unifying the process with the performance.” The title implies physical as well as spiritual and mental intersections, rich with possibilities and with borders rendered blurry. While the inspiring vision behind Bandaloop may seem romantic, realizing it means keeping their feet solidly on the ground — at least figuratively. Twisting beside cliffs or high up urban canyons, with deadly falls always a possibility, requires rigorous planning, bodily strength, and precision.
The Bandaloopers possess what Rudolph calls “core body strength,” strong central muscles in the abdomen and back that enable them to perform with flexibility, stamina, and control. The fact that many Bandaloopers are women dispels gender stereotypes; the image they present is a far cry from that of the delicate-looking classical ballerina en pointe being lifted by her male partner. Because of the unusual venues and high risk of injury, Rudolph insists on safety and technical procedures well above accepted standards. Bandaloop’s support staff includes two to three expert riggers, and all performers are experienced rock climbers.
Some may view such artistic endeavor as a secret death wish, the thrill of being near the edge of oblivion. But Rudolph, while acknowledging an incredible adrenaline rush, disavows any infatuation with danger. For her, it’s about wanting “to make a dance in an environment that allows me to do things that enlarge my lexicon. I’m there to dance. I’m not there to scare people.” Whatever the troupe’s motivation, Project Bandaloop is a unique company of dancers presenting audiences with exhilarating aerial movement and the priceless illusion of liberation from gravity. Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)